There is a comedian by the name of Eddy Izzard whom I enjoy watching. Now, there is no way that I, in good conscience, can recommend him to anyone who has any moral standard, but I will relate to you some of the more suitable comments he makes. In one of his funnier routines, he talks about the “European Dream.” “You got to have a dream!” He exclaims. And through the process of dismantling the idiocy of hundreds of years of European history, he discovers that the best European Dream he can think of is to zoom around in the south of Europe, on a scooter, with your voice bent wildly by the sonar effect as you pass by, and say “Ciao!.”
He accepts that it is not much of a dream, but he likes it.
I think back to Hong Kong, when I was at a dinner party of so many fascinating people from all over the world. I was speaking with a French banker who had a great admiration for America and frequented Catholic Mass in Hong Kong. I don’t know what surprised me more, finding a Frenchman who was impressed with the United States or finding a Frenchman who went to Mass. I take both as a pleasant surprise.
I’ll never forget what he told me about why he loved Americans. He said, “There is nothing that can stop you guys. You always have a dream. You have an ideal that life can be better than it is. No matter what, in life, you have to have an ideal.” He then continued, “I think the Catholic Church can provide that ideal of a better life for the world.”
I was impressed.
It seems to me that he was right, but what would that ideal be? Everywhere I go in Europe I packed by startling contradictions. Europe has so many burnt out youth who don’t want to do anything (I mean what is the point in even trying when America’s got all the money, democracy has proved as corrupt as monarchy, and your teachers tell you that all the good music and good art has already been produced). At the same time, Europe is exploding with culture that lifts up the human spirit by its very nature. Everywhere you look, you see contradictions in Europe. One side of the street you can enter a Church dedicated to the life of a perpetual virgin, and on the other side you can buy lingerie that does not leave room for an imagination.
There is church, after church, after church, in Rome. Everywhere you go you are running into the tomb of a pope or a saint. It is overwhelming. And why? Why is it all here?
My day started with me finishing my pictures of the Pantheon, I had been taking pictures of it off and on for the last two weeks. If you have downloaded Google Earth onto your computer, you can view the pictorial of the Pantheon by clicking here.
I next went to the church of St. Ignatius of Loyola. This is a grand church built in St. Ignatius’s memory. It houses the relics of many Jesuit saints, as well as the tomb of St. Robert Bellarmine, for whom we can thank for giving us the legal definition of a Catholic: someone who has made a procession of Faith in the presence of a legitimate, competent, ecclesial authority, and has not otherwise by action or decree been excommunicated. To view my pictorial of St. Ignatius of Loyola church, click here.
St. Ignatius of Loyola is actually buried in another church nearby, the Gesu, and this is the church that I wanted to make my last church to visit in Rome. To view my pictorial of the Gesu, click here. I waited to visit this church last, almost for the same reason that I waited till the last minute to enter the church of Francis Xavier in Goa, India. I was kind of scared. The Gesu is a massive church, originally designed by Michelangelo. St. Ignatius is of course one of my patrons and I have always been drawn to his writings. I was trained by Jesuits and acquired a strong appreciation for their spirituality.
For my own sake, (not yours) I’m writing down what came to me while praying by St. Ignatius’ tomb. My prayer life has hit a state which is difficult to describe. I can enter deep meditation very quickly (probably from doing it so much recently) and when I’m in that deep state, time becomes irrelevant. I can be still. I can be quiet, not really aware of how much time passes by. I can speak with my innermost being.
I don’t “hear voices” or anything, but thoughts from deep within me come to answer the questions I bring to meditation. “What should I do? What is my life for? What purpose do I serve? What should I become?” I kept asking. “Come on! I’ve come all this way! Give me a vision, or a voice or something! Make the sun dance! I want to see a religious spectacle or something. Give me something to make a good painting about when I die! Come on God!”
I believe that God speaks to us in ways that only we can understand. In a way, I feel bad for the saints who needed to see visions of God in order to act. It was the only way God could speak to them. However, I’ve always had the question: when God does give miraculous visions and voices to saints, why is there so much discrepancy? I mean Our Lady of Guadalupe looks like a Mexican, and Our Lady of Fatima like a French girl. What is up with the inconsistency, God?
One of the deeper “religious experiences” I had was about five years ago when I was on retreat outside of Denver Colorado. I entered the retreat house and went straight to my room where, without prompting, or reason, I began to cry for three hours straight. The whole while, my heart felt like it was on fire, though I was never medically compromised.
It took me a while to realize that my religious imagination has been dominated for years by artwork and imagery of hearts on fire. The fact that God would use that method to speak to me during a retreat should be of no surprise, but neither should the countless other ways that God speaks to us.
The last 2000 years of Church theology have been dominated by spiritual leaders who have been men, celibate, and free from common life, by living in community set apart. Naturally, the images they have used to describe their experience of God have been dominated by the environments to which they have exposed themselves. It doesn’t mean that God is a man, celibate, living in a community set apart, but it does mean that the dominant influence the writers about God in the Catholic community will tend to relate what they know about God. What then can we expect when the bulk of theological inquiry shifts in the next couple hundred years to mothers who experience God in the first time she holds here newborn child? What will God look like to our religious communities when the images of reconciliation that we employ are generated by husbands and wives who, though they have deep disagreements, find the way to forgive one another past injury, debt, adultery, and abuse?
Interesting questions, but back to today. While I was praying, all that came out while I was at the tomb of St. Ignatius was “Breathe.”
“Breathe?” I thought. “What is that supposed to mean? Of course I’m breathing. What is this all about, God? Bringing me all this way just to tell me to breathe! I’m slightly insulted.” But as I focused on my breath, I realized that message wasn’t just for me. The Church needs us to help it breathe as well. The Church can be so constipated by the restrictive forms of our structure and rules, that we forget that the real difference between those who are living, and those who are dead, is not our laws, but our breath. We have to welcome God’s liberating power of life to flow over us and through us. We need to breathe. I need to breathe.
It was a lot to think about while I was there, but still didn’t answer my deep dissatisfaction with why Europe is allowed to have this enormous display of exquisite artistry in all of these churches, especially in Rome. Then I looked up, over the tomb of St. Ignatius, and felt at peace.
AMDG. Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam. The phrase that dominates Ignatian Spirituality, was written above his tomb. Everything I do, from taking photos to traveling to the greatest shrines of the world, is nothing if it is done for me. It only has value if it is done for the Greater Glory of God.
For the Greater Glory of God, I feel, is the best expression of what I have seen of the European Dream. It has been the impetus for great music, great art, great architecture, great politics, and even great missionaries. There is a fault in this dream, in that when used selfishly, it has resulted in grave consequences which are easily demonstrated by critics of religion, but these are errors inherent in the human person, not the religions themselves. Our very best will still never give us perfection. It is our constant struggle to nearer ourselves to God, while never being, or replacing God, that gives God glory.
Thus having discovered, and named for myself, what I think the European dream has been, and why it can justify all the human magnificence. I found it necessary to at least give Eddy Izzard’s dream a try. I don’t regularly take time to relax on this pilgrimage because the mission is too important, but today I finished by 2:00 PM, and had the afternoon to myself. So I found myself a place that rents scooters, rented one, and tooled around Rome for about two hours.
It was fantastic! I haven’t even driven a bicycle in something like ten years, so I made the rental guy just a little concerned at first when I didn’t know how to start the scooter. It took me a half hour just to regain my confidence on a bike, and then I was off through Rome, zooming in and out of cars. For an American, it has to be something special to zoom past timeless ruins on a bike that, downhill, might be able to go 35 miles per hour. I was in heaven, circling round the Coliseum, past the Circus Massimus. In my fantasy world, I was going faster than any chariot and any horse that ever raced before the emperor. Who was I kidding? A horse could go faster than that stupid little thing. I swear I worked on a lawn more back in high school that had more power in its engine. But I didn’t care. My fantasy world was great as I flew past people and cars roaring “Ciao!” I was living another form of the European Dream.
So what does one do when you’ve circled around the Coliseum and Circus Maxumus, in a scooter, on a fantastic Spring afternoon in Rome? That’s right! Go around again!
“Bravo” Fr. Carcar exclaimed that evening at dinner. It was a great way to end a magnificent stay in Italy, and in Rome. For the record, the real dream for Catholics is what I think the best articulation of the European Dream is really: AMDG, for the greater glory of God. But a close second, for anyone who comes to Southern Europe, would have to be renting a scooter.